And then after that, he did Lost. He was one of the executive producers of the series, and a showrunner for it, as well. Over the course of the run, he subsequently won an Emmy, Writers Guild Award, a Producers Guild Award, and a Golden Globe for the show. Most recently, he developed the series, Bates Motel.
This interview occurred before these two series.
Edited by Robert J. Elisberg
Additionally, Cuse wrote and was co-executive producer for the movie-of-the-week, Promise to Keep. He was also a writer on the series, Crime Story.
[As noted, subsequent to this interview, Carlton Cuse was executive producer of Lost and developed the series, Bates Motel.]
CC: I remember seeing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with my parents at a drive-in when I was about ten. I was enthralled; I didn’t want the movie to end, and when it was over all I wanted to do was write in all the missing chapters of their adventures. (I guess it’s no accident that I’ve done a lot of buddy comedy/adventure writing or that my first series was a comedic Western.) Beyond that, as a teenager all the pictures of the 70’s influenced me greatly. I was overwhelmed by movies like The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, American Graffiti, Jaws, Days of Heaven and Apocalypse Now. I fell in love with these movies and they made me want to be involved in film making.
>> When you write, how do you generally work?
CC: I write first thing in the morning, usually from around 7am to 10 am. Then I go to the office and do my showrunning duties. Also, late at night is good for writing – 9pm to midnight or 1am – after my kids are asleep. Writing during these off-hours I’m free from the ringing phone and it doesn’t seem like a job; it makes writing feel like a precious, special activity.
I usually listen to film scores when I write. The exception is when I’m working on something that is very late, like the script that comes in on day five (of seven) of prep and needs a page one rewrite. In that situation I go with no music -- the combination of abject panic and looming deadline is all I need to be creative. When I do listen, I listen to everything from classic Erich Korngold to James Horner. I would single out John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and Ennio Morricone – but I choose music that fits the mood of the scenes I’m working on, and will often listen to the same piece over and over again, not unlike Jack Nicholson’s typing habits in The Shining, until I’ve conquered the scenes or script.
>> Are you a good procrastinator?
CC: Am I a good procrastinator? C’mon, why write when you can clean out the garage? In fact, the WGA should set up a handyman service for WGA writers with pages due. I learned my best lesson on the issue of procrastination from my first writing mentor, a professor of mine at Harvard named Robert Coles. Coles teaches undergraduates at both Harvard and Duke, graduate students at Harvard Medical and Business Schools, keeps a private psychiatric practice, runs a literary magazine called DoubleTake yet prodigiously writes serious, thoughtful books. How does he do it all? He taught me that he gets up every morning and writes for two hours without fail (part of his Puritan ethic) before doing anything else. I took his lesson to heart but it took me a long time to achieve that level of diligence.
>> What sort of characters and stories interest you?
CC: I like all kinds of characters. That’s principally why I write – to put characters out there that come from my imagination and my experiences in life. My favorite characters tend to be the ones who are larger-than-life. I love coming up with the small humorous character parts that turn up in my scripts; they amuse me shamelessly to no end. My main protagonists tend to be heroes with a sense of humor but also the capacity to take charge of themselves and the situation at hand. On a story level, I like telling stories that mix up all sorts of different emotional components. I don’t like it when the stories are mixed up, but I do like it when I can get action, drama, humor and a cheap cry all into the same script.
>> When you create a show, at what point do you feel comfortable turning over your creation to others so that it can move in different directions, or do you feel it more important to stay fully involved since you know it best?
CC: It depends on two things: your level of creative passion and the politics of the show. Each show has a creative life span and each show also is its own (dysfunctional) family. At the beginning of each new season you have to ask yourself two fundamental questions: do you have the passion and raw material in your head and in your heart for twenty-two new shows? Also, do you want to spend the next ten months of your life span with the writers, the cast, the crew and the executives involved in overseeing your show? Hopefully the answer to both questions is yes. Also, series television is unique in that if you come up with a good show it can run for years, so if you want to stay with it you will have limited time to pursue new ideas. It’s all a series of tradeoffs.
>> How do you work through parts of a script where you hit a roadblock in the story?
CC: I’ve learned over time that roadblocks exist. I try not to take them too seriously or focus on them as I go through the writing process. If I encounter a roadblock in a writing session I will try and work on everything that is not conditional on the block. Sometimes I’ll write a really bad version of the scene, knowing that if worse comes to worse and we have to shoot it, the average TV viewer is going to blame the actor.
It’s helpful to get something down on paper no matter how atrocious it is. I’ve learned over time that when I come back to these pages something invariably has evolved in my thinking that leads me on to the next step in working out the problem. I’ve learned to trust in the power of my subconscious. In fact, right now my subconscious is solving the New York Times crossword puzzle from Sunday.
>> What is your best experience as a writer?
CC: I loved doing Nash Bridges, working with Don and Cheech, and most of all, my great writing staff. It’s fun traveling back and forth to San Francisco where we film the show. But all in, my favorite experience was doing The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. The show was wide open creatively and just enormously rewarding on a story telling level (except when we had to explain the logic of the science fiction elements). I remember laughing endlessly in story meetings as we imagined all the most humorous and ludicrous things we could think of, stuck them in the scripts and got them to work in the context of the show. As a cinematic experience it was also fantastic to be able to write something like, “Brisco stands defiant, chained to the hitch rail as the cattle begin to STAMPEDE…” Then buzz across the Warner lot in my golf cart to Laramie Street (the western street where we shot much of the show), and actually see cattle stampeding. I loved all the western gear, the cowboys and old time wranglers who’d already worked on forty years of westerns . They would spit tobacco contemptuously from their saddles at us writers in our golf carts, but, by God, they were they cool. >> Was there any particular writer who acted as a sort of mentor to you?
CC: I’ve been lucky enough to have had a few mentors – Robert Coles, who I mentioned earlier. Plus also John Sacret Young (China Beach, Friendly Fire, Testament, Thanks of a Grateful Nation) and Jeffrey Boam (Lethal Weapon II and III, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).
From Coles I developed a work ethic but more importantly he just helped me be a better person. I learned that being a good writer starts with who you are as a person; it’s as important to work on yourself as much as your craft. I also learned the power of close observation, of finding that small but telling detail that makes you understand a person or an incident. Coles also taught me the value of a writer’s compassion, the importance a writer can have in giving voice to others who are not so fortunate, like James Agee’s brilliant writing in "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”. (Agee later wrote screenplays including The African Queen.)
John Sacret Young and I collaborated on a couple of MOW projects. During this same time, John was also executive producing China Beach. John is a true artist who showed me the possibilities, or to put it better, the lack of limitations of the one-hour form. I learned from him that series scripts can be lyrical and poetic, that plot matters much less than character. In fact, he taught me that deeply felt character is all that really matters. He set a standard excellence for himself and those who worked for him. (As an interesting side note, almost all of John’s senior staff and crew from China Beach went on together to launch ER, including executive producers John Wells, Lydia Woodward and Carole Flint, director Mimi Leder, Director of Photography Richard Thorpe, Casting director John Levey. Director Rod Holcomb directed both the pilots of both series.)
Jeffrey Boam and I were partnered at Warner Bros. for a number of years and worked on various TV and movie projects together. During the time of our partnership Jeffrey wrote Lethal Weapon II, Lethal Weapon III plus Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Jeffrey is a real master of the craft and technique of film writing, and I was fortunate to work with him during an incredibly fertile creative period. I learned a lot about how to write buddy comedy and action-adventure during our collaboration.
>> Why do you write?
CC: Because there’s nothing I love to do more. That’s it.